The Packing House

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Chapter 32 | Unexpected Answers

Grandma calls me in for dinner. Amber has gone, and the rest of the night is a different rude awakening: all my recent slacking off has caught up with me. I’m buried in homework for chemistry, multiple readings in history and English, classwork for gym, and a project entirely in Spanish I can’t even begin to get my head around. I may never trudge through all of these. Why did I have to transfer at the end of the marking period?

I’ll have to tackle the garage tomorrow. School is the most pressing thing, if I ever hope to get back with Amber. Who am I kidding? I was never with Amber. In my mind doesn’t count. Besides, I’ve got to figure out what doesn’t add up with my dad’s letter.



I don’t remember falling asleep. I’m out of bed and groggily stumbling to find a glass of water when I sense his presence. Without warning, I’m slammed against the wall, wedged hard against the flat surface, his body squelching mine. My voice wheezes out, exhaling as he presses more air from my lungs. No way am I letting this go down without a fight.

“Shh. Shh. You’re okay. It will be okay. Shh…”

All I can hear is his breathing, a ringing in my ears, while I’m choked by the stench of sulfur. My throat clenches.

“It feels better if’n you don’t fight it, Joel. Lean into it. I’ll learn you to love this.”

Leading with my shoulders, I pivot with a jerk left and right, briefly breaking his hold for much needed air. I can’t see anything in the dim shadows and absorbing darkness. I’m surprised by the gurgle crawling up my throat, and I’m screaming before I can make sense of what’s happening. My elbows fail to find their target. Not enough to break free, anyway.

“Get off me!”

Panic joins the unspoken message firing in my brain: get away!

His massive arms pin and then bind me, immobile. I can’t feel my wrists. Scrambling, I fight to break his grip. He shoves me so hard, I can’t pull in air or get my hands to form fists.

He rips open the back of my shirt, and then I feel enormous hands gripping the waist of my pants. I’m lifted up off the ground until the seam finally gives way, and then I’m falling. My hands slip free and my fists and elbows swing with all the pent-up force I can muster, until I feel the wall giving way. A vague numbness wafts over me as I punch, kick, and wrestle to get away.

“Better… nngh… when you fight it, Joel.”

“Bastard.”

I don’t waste my energy on more words; I’d rather cling to silence.

If I could, I would crawl right out of my skin, leaving this bag of bones and organs, like my ripped clothing, in a heap at my feet.

I wish I couldn’t feel the rhythmic jabs as they cut through each remaining inch of my body.

He doesn’t stop, and neither will my fists.



In the morning, my arms feel tight, bound from the struggle of fighting to break free from his grasp. I can see the bandages wrapped around my hands and wrists, but my mind can’t compute where they came from. Instead, I try to shake it off, but it lingers despite my best efforts to focus elsewhere—anywhere else. To forget how real that dream felt… a living nightmare.

I am determined to ignore the ache that throbs just below the surface and move on.

All through school, I’m antsy. Several classes add homework to the current heap. Mr. Castell pulls me aside at the end of English to give me more bad news. He eyes me strangely before proceeding.

“Joel, I need you to complete a portfolio assignment for me, to help pull your grade out of the failure zone. Since your transfer grade is so low, you need an extra-credit assignment to bring it up, or you’ll still fail for the year no matter what your final quarter grade is. I have no other choice. Read all the poems in this packet the class completed before you came, and write analyses of all twenty or write a collection of your own original poems using the poetic devices referred to in the packet. If you write your own poems, I will accept twelve. Otherwise, I can’t pass you for the year.”

After Mr. Castell nails the lid on the coffin of my homework load, I skip out on my appointment with Mr. Faber and head to the library, instead. The buzz in the hallway has to do with someone’s attempted suicide. I can’t deal with that right now. Once I’m safe in the library, I vaguely register someone passing out flyers for an upcoming regional poetry slam. I need air, but it’s like I’m already underground, buried beneath these assignments.

I did find a few interesting books at my grandmother’s house, but pretty slim pickings. I defer to my usual haunt and scrounge up a handful in short order. I don’t remember taking one of those flyers. I tuck it in one of the books.

I catch a flash of red hair in the Writing Center. Amber. She’s talking with her friend, the one I’ve seen who wears her hair up in scarves.

“Joel? What happened to you?” both girls echo in unison. They’re staring downward. At what I can’t tell.

“Nothing. I’m just drowning in homework. Listen. Do me a favor and don’t come over to my grandmother’s house. I’ll take care of—”

She interrupts. “Joel, you can’t just boss people around. I made a commitment to help her until the end of the year. You can take over after that, but I’m finishing what I started.”

Amber’s friend is looking at me funny. What is everyone staring at? Time to bail.

I blow off mandatory tutoring and head to Grandma’s house. Might as well go three for three. I don’t even go through the house, just straight up the driveway and into the garage. I promise myself I’ll finish at least one project after dinner.

Most of the remaining boxes are an assortment of outdated clothing, books, and one interesting box of war memorabilia. Too bad we don’t cover the World Wars, or I could score extra credit for bringing in artifacts. Even after I sort through every book and look for other hints surrounding my father’s departure, I find nothing.

I box up everything by categories and report to my grandmother.

“I finished sorting all the boxes, Grandma. We can go to Goodwill now, if you like.”

“Oh, have you now?” Old people humor. Heh, heh. I get it. She stares at me a good long time, her eyes tearing up for some reason. She reaches out to me tenderly before pulling away.

That makes me think a minute.

“You’re not done with that project, Joel. Sorry to say. Now that you started, you’re going to have to finish the whole thing. I still have a storage shed over at the farm house. Mrs. Porter owns it now, ever since I moved here. I’ll have to get you the key, but it’s all in there. Oh, and I think there’s still some things in the attic. Maybe you can climb up and get them down for me?”

“Okay, Grandma. I guess I can keep going. Is there a lot more?”

“Not too much. But enough, I reckon.”

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go.”

“Let me get that key, and I think I have a bicycle you can use to ride back when you’re done. It’s not far. That way, I can finish dinner. You’ll be on your own, I’m afraid.”

“That’s fine, Grandma. I don’t need any distractions to sidetrack me.”

“That reminds me. I haven’t seen Amber yet today. Was she at school?”

Uh, yeah. I saw her in the library. She looked pretty busy. Maybe we should get going.”

“Such a nice young girl. Not like the rest of them, don’t you agree?”

“Sure, Grandma. Sure.”

We head in the opposite direction from the high school, out to the main road and then left. After a few miles, we’re out of city limits into farmland. I remember the barn-shaped mailbox at the end of the driveway. Split-rail fences line either side of the dirt and gravel driveway.

Edith and Horace Porter have been friends of the family for all the years I can remember, growing up. Mr. Porter and my grandfather worked in the fields when the crops came in. Now it’s just Mrs. Porter, and only the chickens to tend. She likes her eggs fresh. Grandma points out how it’s all different since the last time we were here. The driveway hasn’t changed, though. It’s bumpy in all the places I remember, but Grandma is an expert at avoiding most of the potholes.

We turn in between the house and the barn, and I pull out the bike from the back. Grandma starts to back out then rolls down her window.

“Here’s the key. Shed’s around the side of the barn. Even though she’s away, the house should be unlocked. We never locked it ourselves. The steps to the attic are at the end of the hallway, near the bedrooms. I’ll see you back at the house.”

Being here again brings back memories of Jonathan and me. We used to climb around in the barn loft, feed carrots to the horse, milk the cow with Grandpa, and chase the chickens around the yard, hearing their offended clucks amidst our laughter. At nightfall, we caught fireflies in canning jars and watched their tails light like the pulse of a lighthouse. We’d sit on the porch and listen to Grandpa tell stories, sipping sweet tea with sprigs of mint.

Sometimes, the coastal storms sent all the seagulls inland. We chased them around, squawking and flapping our arms, and then fell in the grass, exhausted but happy. When Uncle Steven was here, he took us fishing at the lake almost every day. I forgot there were times I felt more than alive. Those times were long ago.

The summer my father left… or got stationed far away. Wish I knew. I remember gathering night crawlers after sunset for bait. My brain floods with so many fond memories, yet I’m struck by another thought forming at the back of my mind.

The thought drives toward me from far off like a Mack Truck. It’s too far to know what it is for sure. My senses pick up on it, though, and I’m uneasy. No doubt it’s nothing. I can’t push it out of my mind, though. Not completely.

I wish I knew what went on between my parents just before I saw my father load his bags and drive away. Did they have a fight? I don’t remember raised voices or the electricity in the air when parents silently rage within range of children.

The boxes aren’t going to sort themselves. I head to the shed and tug the padlock open. There are fifteen, maybe twenty boxes. Okay, so this isn’t going to be too difficult.

When I open the first box, it’s a jumble of papers, records, letters, information about the military; I realize this belongs to my father. A thought jumps in my head. Does Grandma know? Is she setting me up here? Why would she purposely give me a project that has me sorting my father’s things? In fact, why are his things here? Is this where they ended up? Why hasn’t he come back? Digging faster, I scan for something that might start to make sense.

I can’t trust my mother to tell the truth. Maybe I can find something here. When my hand reaches the bottom of the box, my heart takes a nose dive beneath my feet. If it were anywhere, it would be here. Where is it? What is this leading me to?

Going through several other boxes, I find clothes—his “civvies.” At least that’s what I think he called them. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father out of uniform. How odd I only realize this now. He was in the military forever. The next two boxes yield more clothes, then books, some old model cars, and a box of dusty trophies. I don’t remember my father winning anything, or even talking about winning. Maybe they’re from his childhood. I don’t know.

I gnaw on my lip. Why does it stop here? I’ve got to pick up this trail and see where it leads. The attic! I head for the house and leave the rest where it’s at. I’ll take care of it before I bike back.

The side door goes into a mud room and through to the living room. To the right, the kitchen is flooded with light coming through a bank of windows. To the left, the living room sits dark and empty. I see furniture, but not what I remember.

The Porters have their things here now. It seems strange somehow. As I look around the room, I mentally replace the furniture around me with what I remember used to be here: the couches, chairs, lamps, even the rocking chair off to the right and lace doilies on every table top—everything in its former place. Looking back at the kitchen, I recall the plastic-covered chairs my grandparents had and the metal legs of the kitchenette set. Grandma had a bench where she would sit and snap the ends of beans as she worked on supper, staring out the back. I haven’t thought of any of this in over ten years, maybe…



I remember I sat in the rocking chair, but when I move to go sit in it, I realize it’s no longer there. Weird. I keep seeing things the way they were in my mind’s eye. In my memory, I had come to sit in the living room since it was cooler there. I sat in the dark and rocked in the chair for a long time.

Outside, I heard Uncle Steven mowing the yard. I could see him as he passed the back door—which was open; just the screen, keeping flies out. It was so hot, he had his shirt off and even so, he sweated terribly when he came in, the screen door slapping the frame. I remember the grains of dust—shaken from the screen door—falling down all around him as he stood in the doorway, wiping at sweat with the shirt in his hands.

“I’ll be out in a bit. Gonna take me a shower and change.”

I kept rocking. The front and back doors were open, giving me a nice cross-breeze to rock in. I watched some birds twitter away in the branches in the front yard. I don’t know what they were doing, but watching them calmed me. I started to relax.

After a while, I got up and walked into the kitchen to look out the windows. I could see the chickens going in and out of their coop and the cat skulking around near the barn door. No one else was here, but I can’t remember why. Just then, Uncle Steven called from further down the back hall. I guess he was already out of the shower and changing in one of the rooms.

“C’mere once-et, would ya?”

“Do you need something?” I hollered back.

“Just c’mere a sec.”

I walked down the hallway. There was no way to tell where he was.

“Where are you? Which room?” I asked.

“In here.” To my right. Just ahead. I turned to the right in the doorway, and the world tilted on its side and fell down around me in slow motion. Standing before me in the middle of the room was Uncle Steven—naked—his clothes cast off in a heap on the floor, and his towel on the bed. I was frozen. Terrified. What the hell? Nothing made sense. The walls bent and started to go funny. Somehow, he reached way too far across the room and pulled me toward him.

“C’mere, I said!”

His arm gripped the back of my head and forced me down toward him. I cried out in pain where his hand had wrenched at my hair. Right away, I gagged and started coughing. I was crying, coughing, gagging.

I didn’t know what to do.

I put my hands up and tried to push at his waist to get him to let me go. I tried to scream with him thrusting in my mouth, but I only managed a gargling sound. The smell of sulfur burned my eyes. I was stunned by the warm liquid and the way he cried out and pulled away as I grimaced.

My hands fell to the floor as I reeled and spit out the gummy fluid. I looked up at him—angry, horrified, shocked, numb; tears made jagged cuts across my face.

“Why did you pee in my mouth?”

When I realized he didn’t have a hold on me anymore, I scrambled up, wiped my mouth against my sleeve, and ran. The room still swirled, and I had to put my hands out to find the walls. I can’t remember how I got back down the hallway or out the front door. I just remember I threw it open and leapt down the steps with my heart beating fast and loud, and I thought it might rip right out of my chest, like the birds shooting out from tree branches.

Then I ran and didn’t stop and didn’t register anything other than running as fast as I could. Get away. Get away. Now! Don’t stop! He could be coming after you!

Running through the cornfield, I watched as stalks beat against my face. I broke through row after row. I didn’t want him to see me. Maybe he could hear me, but I had to hide. I had to get away. I had to keep running.

I retched at the back fence that edged a horse pasture and riding trails. Ducking through the slats, I ran in the tall grass. Now that I was in the next field, I risked looking back just once, to see if he pursued me.

Pausing long enough to hear if there were footsteps bearing down on me, I exhaled when none came. Still, I couldn’t be sure, so I turned and kept running. Under a copse of trees back by the riding trails, I stopped and caught my breath.

I was shaky, dizzy, and light-headed from the exertion. All of that was far away, happening to someone else. I couldn’t feel anything anymore but the mechanical rise and fall of my lungs. Pinpricks across my face revealed tiny cuts from the cornfield. In the cool of the shade, I lay—chest heaving—sucking in air, letting it out, sucking in air again, like bellows.

But I couldn’t get his taste out of my mouth.



[From the journal of Joel Scrivener.]

WAKING

I realize I’ve been sleeping.

I bolt up, breathe like bellows.

In that breath my lungs

rattle, weigh me down to the floor.

It’s all right. I kneel beneath the table,

knuckled, aware of heat and tears

my breath emerges. Perhaps my bones

turn to wood. In these moments

I knock against glass and rupture.

What do I see when I fear my reflection?

It is difficult to feel others, outside. I am ashamed

of tears. I will not speak the words swelled against

my skull. I break glass. I gather

my words or blink them back. I share

these surges with others, inside. Do you hear me?

Don’t realize my eyes have opened.

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